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Drug development for neglected diseases: a deficient market and a public-health policy failure

The so-called 10/90 gap in health research — which refers to the fact that only about 10 per cent of funding is targeted to diseases which account for 90 per cent of the global disease burden — is a well recognised phenomenon which is being targeted by a number of initiatives. This article, by members of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Working Group at Médicines Sans Frontières, analysed the outcomes of pharmaceutical research and development over the past 25 years and reviewed current public and private initiatives aimed at addressing the lack of research into controlling important infectious diseases in developing countries.

The authors found that of nearly 1400 new drugs marketed between 1975 and 1999, only 16 were for tropical diseases and tuberculosis (all of which had been developed with public-sector involvement). There is a 13-fold greater chance of a drug being brought to market for central nervous system disorders or cancer than for a neglected disease.

The authors conclude that there is no indication that drug development for "non profitable" infectious diseases will significantly improve in the near future and that new strategies are required to stimulate such development. They argue that a sustainable solution will require the establishment of an international pharmaceutical policy for all neglected diseases. Private sector research obligations should be explored further, and public sector not-for-profit research capacity promoted, particularly for the most neglected diseases.

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